What's French about French vanilla?

Q: Vanilla versus French vanilla. Explain, please!

—Tracey Thomas, San Francisco

A: Vanilla bean varieties are often named for where they're grown, like Madagascar, Tahiti and Mexico. That's not the case with French vanilla. The name refers not to a vanilla variety but the classic French way of making ice cream using an egg custard base.

Craig Nielsen, chief executive officer of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in Waukegan, Ill., said the eggs give French vanilla a "richer, deeper note" than what's found in plain vanilla.

Agreeing with him is Jeff Miller, a chef with Dunkin' Brands, the Canton, Mass., company behind Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. "The word I would use is 'complex,' French vanilla is more complex than straight-up vanilla," he said.

Baskin-Robbins discontinued its French vanilla flavor last summer after a 65-year run. Miller doesn't read much into that, noting the ice cream maker advertises 31 flavors at any one time while having a "library" containing thousands of flavors.

"This allows us to rotate flavors in and out,'' he said.

As for regular vanilla ice cream made without eggs, know that it's called "Philadelphia-style" vanilla ice cream, according to David Lebovitz, the Paris-based baker, chef and blogger.

French vanilla, of course, is both a taste and a scent that transcends ice cream. Here's how it's defined by Mauricio Poulsen, director of creation and application flavors for International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.

"Today, in sensory terms, when we refer to French vanilla, it is when the vanilla flavor is caramelized, custard-like, cooked, egg yolk-like, slightly floral,'' he wrote in an e-mail from the company's offices in Tambore, Brazil.

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: wdaley@tribune.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611.

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